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Political Recruiting Season

When New Jersey Rep. Bob Menendez said he might give up a safe seat to run for the Senate next year, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt got on the phone right away and asked Menendez to hold off until the two could meet.

Menendez says Gephardt told him "we're going to have a majority" after 2000, and that as a member of the leadership, Menendez would have more ability to shape policy than if he were in the Senate.

Menendez decided to seek re-election to the House, meaning his fund-raising talents can be put to better use helping more Democratic candidates win House seats.

Score one for Gephardt, D-Mo., and the Democrats in the recruiting battle, an early part of the struggle for House control in 2000.

A loss of six seats next year would deprive Republicans of their majority. That slim margin has made both parties eager to minimize retirements from within their ranks while also courting strong candidates.

Candidates "must be up and running by May" to establish their credibility in states with early filing deadlines, says Ed Brookover, a former political director at the GOP campaign committee.

He adds that there is more time in states with later primary elections, but "between now and Labor Day is just crucial."

Gephardt and the Democrats are not alone in the recruiting game.

Melissa Hart, a third-term state senator from Pennsylvania, recently came to Washington, where she met with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

She is considering a challenge for the seat now held by Democratic Rep. Ron Klink, who is weighing a Senate bid, but she declined to discuss her plans.

Nationally, Republicans are undergoing a top-to-bottom transition at their campaign committee and are more reluctant to discuss their recruitment efforts.

"It's none of your business" who is being courted, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the new committee chairman.

Other Republicans, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the GOP has been slower to gear up. The perception that Democrats could gain a majority in 2000 is hampering efforts, they said.

Moreover, Republicans must cope with the expected retirements of some committee chairmen required to surrender their powerful posts at the end of the current term. Other vacancies will occur among Republicans who came to Congress in 1994 pledging to serve no longer than six years.

Democrats are eager to talk about their early recruiting efforts, projecting confidence about their ability to end six years of Republican rule in the House.

"We're gearing up faster than two years ago," says Erik Smith, a spokesman for the House Democratic congressional campaign.

Given the political backlash produced by President Clinton's impeachment in the GOP-controlled House, he said, Democratic "activists never disengaged. They just kept working."

Open seatare likely to be a key to the battle for control and Democrats are determined to hold retirements to an absolute minimum. Thus, they were cheered recently when Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., announced he would run for a new term, his 19th.

Gephardt and Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the campaign committee, are hoping to douse the ambition of lawmakers mulling Senate campaigns.

For example, Gephardt secured a seat on the powerful Commerce Committee for Rep. Bill Luther of Minnesota, who then gave up thoughts of running for the Senate.

Gephardt also has spoken to Democratic Reps. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, David Minge of Minnesota, Nita Lowey from New York, and Ted Strickland in Ohio, all of whom had been pondering Senate races.

Stabenow, who defeated a Republican incumbent to claim her House seat in 1996, seems certain to run for the Senate. "It's a marginal seat," she said in an interview, and already, both parties are trying to line up candidates.

And Gephardt is not limiting his efforts to persuasion of Democrats.

He has talked with Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the House's only independent, about skipping a challenge to GOP Sen. James Jeffords. Sanders votes with Democrats for organizational purposes, and Democrats protect his seniority rights, even though he is not a member of the party's caucus.

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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